The Ching Ming festival, when people visit the graves of their relatives, was celebrated earlier this month and, for the first time in more than 50 years, it was accorded the status of a public holiday on the mainland. That should have been greeted with a resounding cheer, because people on the mainland get precious little paid time off. But, instead, the media was bemoaning the way the ancient festival is now divorced from its historical roots and has become almost as commercialised as Christmas is in the west.
Shanghai's Wen Hui Daily led the way with a suitably solemn editorial on how people have cashed in on the holiday by offering piles of paper money and artfully designed imitation goods and food to be burned over tombs. The message was that paying respect to one's deceased relatives is good and proper, but not when it becomes a competition to show off how much one can spend on objects set to go up in smoke.
Worse, though, is the fact that many people appear to have forgotten that the festival started out as 'Clear and Bright Day'; it was originally a celebration of the arrival of spring and an opportunity to commune with nature, after months of shivering inside. Only later did it become a day to visit the tombs of relatives. Now, it's become associated with the sort of conspicuous consumption that is pervading mainland society and which sits uncomfortably with the remembrance of the dead.
But that's no surprise, given the way the funeral trade has become big business. The cost of dying, especially in the cities, is soaring. In some cemeteries in Beijing it costs 70,000 yuan (HK$77,950) for a modest plot measuring just 2 square metres. Leading cemeteries charge 10,000 to 30,000 yuan per square metre for a grave, compared with 20,000 yuan per square metre for a flat in Beijing. Nor does the price of a tomb include the costs of the funeral and the coffin you're buried in, or the amount needed to be cremated. In 2004, the last year for which figures are available, the funeral industry reported revenue of 7.5 billion yuan and profits of just over 1 billion yuan. With earnings like that, it's no wonder more and more companies are trying to get a piece of the action. But, like so many other sectors of the mainland economy, the funeral industry remains under the firm control of the authorities, in the shape of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
An astonishing 80 per cent of funeral homes are still owned by the state, as are half of the mainland's cemeteries, and the sector generates a healthy income for the central government. But, as people burned their paper money over the tombs of their ancestors on April 4, some might have been wondering if it's right for the state to control the funeral industry. Benjamin Franklin said that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. On the mainland, though, the two go together.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist